1. Religion & Spirituality

Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)

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Background Information

In the early 1960s, Roy Torcaso was appointed by the Governor of Maryland to the position of Notary Public. When the time came for him to actually assume his duties, he was denied his commission and had his appointment rescinded because he refused to declare his belief in God.

Article 37 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights stated:

[N]o religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God.

Torcaso filed suit in state court because he felt the test unfairly penalized him for not believing in God.

Court Decision

In a unanimous decision in 1961, the Supreme Court reuled that Maryland's religious test violated Torcaso's religious freedom.

In his majority opinion, Justice Black stated that the need to protect people from taking religious test oaths was what led to the creation of Article 37 of the Constitution:

No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

This was soon followed by the First Amendment which further guaranteeed basic religious liberties:

We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person "to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion." Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.

The state tried to argue that they did not actually force anyone to profess a particular religious belief because no one was compelled to hold a public office - such positions are entirely voluntary. The Court responded that no citizen should be asked to sacrifice constitutional liberties simply to hold a public office.

Significance

This decision prohibited the government from using religious faith as one of the criteria for assuming public office. The Court rejected the argument that holding such jobs is a privilege that can be restricted to people of some prescribed religious belief.

One of the reasons this case is important is some of the dicta which were attached to the final opinion. The term dicta is a plural and shortening of "obiter dictum," or "said in passing." Such statements are personal opinions of the justice - they are not necessary to the final result and have no legal force.

In a dictum footnote attached to this opinion, Justice Black wrote:

Among the religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.

This is frequently cited by people on the religious right as that the Supreme Court has declared Secular Humanism to be a religion, but such people are simply unaware of the fact that dicta have no legal force. Ignoring this uncomfortable fact, however, allows them to argue that any hint of Secular Humanism in schools is a violation of the separation of church and state - an ironic argument, since they would be happy to dispense with separation anyway.

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